Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: May 16, 2017
Webpage updated: September 23, 2019




The earliest railways in Plymouth were for the movement of stones for building work.  In order of construction they were the Eddystone Tramway, 1756; the Breakwater Tramway, 1812; and the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway, 1823, of which branches were opened to Cann Quarry in 1829 and Plympton in 1833/34.  These were all closed by the time the Lee Moor Tramway was opened in 1854 to transport china clay from Lee Moor on Dartmoor to ships at the Cattewater in Plymouth.

Following on from the opening of the Great Western Railway from London to Temple Meads, Bristol, in 1841 and with the Bristol and Exeter Railway already under construction, the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel surveyed a line through the South Hams of Devon to Plymouth in 1836.  Likewise, Lord Morley's consulting engineer, Mr James Meadows Rendel, had surveyed a line through the heart of Dartmoor to Plymouth.  Rendle's proposal was considered at a public meeting in the Royal Hotel, Plymouth, in 1840 and accepted but was dropped in 1842 in favour of Brunel's line to the south of Dartmoor.  This became known as the Plymouth, Devonport and Exeter Railway until November 21st 1843, when the name was changed to the South Devon Railway and the go-ahead given for the proposal.

On May 5th 1848 the South Devon Railway was opened between Totnes and a temporary station at Laira Green, on the outskirts of Plymouth.  This route forms the present main line into Plymouth.  It was extended into Plymouth Station, at Millbay, on April 4th 1849.  Plymouth Engine Shed, just before the Station, was also opened at that time.  In May 1853 the South Devon Railway Company opened their Sutton Harbour Branch from Laira Junction to Sutton Harbour by adding a third, broad-gauge rail to the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway's 4ft 6ins track.  A couple of year's later it was relaid to take steam locomotives.

The remainder of the main line through Plymouth into Cornwall was opened as far as Truro by the Cornwall Railway Company on May 4th 1859.  The only station within modern Plymouth was at Devonport.   The Royal Albert Bridge was opened on the same day.  Railway access to the Royal Dockyard was provided in 1867 by means of the Devonport Dockyard Railway.  Both the South Devon Railway Company and the Cornwall Railway Company were amalgamated into the Great Western Railway Company on February 1st 1876.

On the eastern side of the Plymouth the South Devon and Tavistock Railway Company opened its line from Tavistock Junction on the main South Devon Railway to Tavistock on June 21st 1859.  There were stations at only Bickleigh and Horrabridge.  This Railway amalgamated with the South Devon Railway on July 1st 1865, the last meeting of the shareholders being held on August 31st.  Also in July 1865, the South Devon Railway Company installed a siding and a platform to accommodate traffic for the Royal Agricultural Society of England's show being held in the Exhibition Fields.

In the 1860s there was a proposal to construct the South Hams Railway linking Plymouth with Dartmouth and onward via Paignton to Newton Abbot but their bankers failed in 1866.

On May 18th 1876 the London and South Western Railway Company opened its "narrow" gauge line over the route of the Great Western Railway Company's Tavistock and Launceston Branch into Plymouth and via the new Cornwall Loop to a new terminal station at Devonport.

Following the acquisition of the South Devon Railway Company, the Great Western Railway Company re-laid its Sutton Harbour Branch, which it re-opened on November 6th 1876.  The London and South Western Railway Company opened its own Sutton Harbour Branch on October 22nd 1876.  The new joint GWR/LSWR North Road Plymouth Station was opened in 1877, when a detailed description of it was published.  Out on Dartmoor, the Princetown Railway Company opened a branch line to Princetown in 1883 and Yelverton Station became its junction in 1885.

The final section of main line to be constructed in Plymouth was from Lydford on Dartmoor through Tavistock and Bere Alston to Devonport LSWR Station.  This was opened by the Plymouth, Devonport and South Western Junction Railway Company on June 2nd 1890.   As at first the trains terminated at North Road Plymouth Station, this turned Devonport Station into a through one.  Their line was extended to Friary Station in 1891, where the Friary Engine Shed was also opened.

A line had been built from Plymouth's Friary Station to Plymstock and opened on September 5th 1892.  This crossed the river Plym at Laira Bridge.  On January 1st 1897 the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway Company, acting as an agent for the London and South Western Railway Company, opened a branch from Plymstock to Oreston and Turnchapel

This was followed by the obtaining of an Act of Parliament for the South Hams Railway to run from Plymstock to Modbury.  The Great Western Railway Company feared that this line would be extended to Torquay and eventually Exeter so it negotiated to have the rights for the section as far as Yealmpton to be transferred to themselves, leaving the LSWR with running powers over the GWR line to get to its own portion between Yealmpton and Modbury.  Not surprisingly this did not exactly materialise.  The Great Western Railway Company's Yealmpton Branch was formally opened on January 17th 1898 but the line to Modbury was never constructed.

The Great Western Railway Company opened the Laira Engine Shed in 1901 and introduced the Saltash Suburban Service in 1904.  In 1905 the London and South Western Railway Company built a new Friary Engine Shed and in 1906 started the Saint Budeaux Suburban Service from Friary Station.

The Great Western Railway Company remained as one of the "Big Four" in the grouping of 1st January 1923, as required by the Railway Act 1921, and was nationalized as British Railways Western Region from 1st January 1948.  The lines of the old Southern Railway Company became the Southern Region.  Both were overseen by the British Transport Commission, formed under the Transport Act 1947.

British Railways were to subsequently close the former Southern Railway main line through Devonport, part of the Callington Branch, the Cattewater Branch, the Launceston Branch, the Princetown Branch, two Sutton Harbour Branches (Southern Region and Western Region), the Turnchapel Branch, and the Yealmpton Branch.

Click on the following links for more information about the Engines Sheds, Goods Depots and Yards, Ground Frames, Halts, Junctions, Platforms, Sidings, Signal Boxes, Signalling, Stations, Tunnels, and Viaducts -